A new documentary explores the struggle of marginalized Black artists, and, in its 90 minute run time, although Black Art: In the Absence of Light never explicitly mentions it, it’s impossible not to draw parallels between the plight of the artists featured in the film and the Black Lives Matter movement. Both struggles are born of the fight not only to be recognized but in many cases to simply exist.
The documentary begins by reflecting on the 1976 art exhibit Two Centuries of Black American Art curated by artist and art historian David Driskell. In an old Today Show broadcast, a youthful-looking Tom Brokaw interviews Driskell the week after the exhibit’s release.
“The black artist in America has had to put up with a great deal over the years. It’s not been simply a matter of mastering the art while surviving as a person,” Brokaw opened. “This has been the experience of most white artists of course. For the Black artist, it has also been a matter of being taken seriously as an artist and as an individual.”
They’ve never had the experience of knowing what it was like to suffer injusticesDriskell discussing white critics
“Being taken seriously as an individual” is a highly sanitized summary of the nation’s roots in slavery and the racist oppression that followed, perhaps befitting of daytime television at the time. Later in the documentary footage is shown where Brokaw asks Driskell about a negative review the show received from a New York Times art critic who describes the show as not being “generally of the highest quality.”
“I expect that from what one refers to as a mainstream critic because in many cases the persons are not familiar with what one might refer to as the Black experience,” Driskell responds. “They’ve never had the experience of knowing what it was like to suffer injustices, knowing what it was like to live in the poverty that many of these artists have experienced and consequently they have no real sensitivity, no real feel for what it has taken for these artists to achieve what they’ve achieved.”
The sentiments expressed in the interview from a half-century ago are, for the most part, as true today as they were in 1976. Driskell’s exhibit was controversial at that time not just because of mixed reviews by ignorant white critics but because it drew attention to the numerous generations of African American artists who were ignored by the “mainstream” — a reality today’s Black artists also face. As some Black Lives Matter activists argue they struggle to even be “taken seriously” as humans.
Reaching back two centuries, the exhibit drew work from a time when enslaved Africans or African American’s were not permitted to read, much less be master potters or landscape painters. Today the landscape for Black artists is much brighter.
The documentary is full of successful African American artists who reflect on the inspiration their ancestor’s art instilled in them.
Artist Sanford Biggers discusses growing up with the book produced from Driskell’s exhibition.
“These were images that I saw before I could really say the names, they were just sort of imprinted on me. There was definitely a sense of communication and education from those images because you have to remember at that time there were very few positive images of black folks that were widely available,” Biggers recalled.
Almost all of the current artists in the film are considered successful because they were able to break through the barriers that still exist for black artists at the gates of white-run “fine art” institutions.
“In a survey of major American museums, it was determined that 85% of artists in major American art museum collections are white. If you break down the number of artists of color in those collections it’s 1.2% black,” art critic, Maurice Berger said while arguing for more diversity in museum management.
“If the person sitting at the table in a curatorial meeting or the people sitting at the table are all white you’re going to have a problem, you’re going to have a problem with interpretation, you’re going to have a problem in terms of trying to figure out what you’re doing right or wrong and most importantly you’re going to have a problem in terms of the work you select.
“If all of the critics writing are white the same problem exists,” Berger said.
Although the documentary appears to be advocating for increased diversity in mainstream American art — particularly as it relates to African Americans — overall it is a story of Black resilience and triumph. It is hard to see the work of these great artists and not be impressed by their magnificence in any context.
The portrait of President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley. The towering Black female Sphinx made entirely of sugar and housed in an abandoned Domino Sugar factory created by Kara Walker. All prove examples of the recent and transformative success of Black artists.
Yet, the film also presents a story of sadness. You get the feeling that some of the older Black artists featured in the work hoped African Americans would be further along as a people and as an artistic community at this point.
One of the positive developments in the African American arts community has been its support from successful Black entrepreneurs. Music producer Kasseem Dean, better known as Swizz Beatz, and his wife Alicia Keys, have amassed an incredible personal collection of Black art that’s the envy of most modern museums.
The documentary insinuates that Dean’s collection which dates back years may have influenced the collections of Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, JAY-Z and Beyonce, and other Black celebrities.
“[Visual] Art and music are brothers and sisters,” Dean said.
In terms of financial success and societal impact, perhaps the most successful contemporary artist featured in the documentary, Theaster Gates, seems to have moved past inclusion as a ticket to Black artist achievement.
In the quote from which the documentary takes its name Gates argues that Black art can and should exist without commercial acclaim.
“We’re part of a continued renaissance. It’s been happening. What I’m most excited about is do we have the capacity to be great makers in the absence of light,” Gates said. “ If blackness has something to do with the absence of light does Black art mean that sometimes I’m making when no one is looking? And for the most part that has been the truth of our lives.”